Flight review: American Airlines business class from New York to San Francisco for 5,000 miles and $6
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Business class from New York to San Francisco for 5,000 miles and $5.60 in fees? That’s almost unheard of, but that’s how I flew coast to coast in February. American Airlines unexpectedly upgraded me from economy, turning a flight that would have been a great value even in coach class into an extraordinary miles redemption. Despite some service kinks in the air, it was a very good experience.
Like all American Airlines flights from New York – JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, this one was aboard an Airbus A321. American has more of the longest Airbus narrow-body jet than any other airline, with 17 configured in the unique layout that it calls “A321T” for Transcon. That’s the low-density seating configuration that AA uses on its premium cross-country routes. It has just 102 seats divided among first, business and economy, compared to 196 on American’s high-density A321s. Spirit Airlines, for example, crams 228 people into the same aircraft.
Because of the drop in demand due to the coronavirus, all of the 17 Airbus A321Ts are currently grounded, according to fleet-tracking sites. When healthy air traffic returns, you can expect to see them ply again American’s premium-heavy routes between the coasts.
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This was one of the best mileage redemptions I’ve ever made. When AA expanded its new Web Specials program in November 2019, The Points Guy wrote about discounted transcontinental award availability and I leapt at the opportunity. I paid a total of 5,000 miles — which we value at $70 — and $5.60 for the one-way flight from New York to San Francisco! The best part? I got an unicorn transcontinental upgrade less than 24 hours before the flight. When I booked, I was Executive Platinum, the highest American Airlines elite tier short of the invitation-only Concierge Key. By the time of the flight I had dropped — just eight days earlier — to Platinum Pro, one elite tier below. Several agents told me as a Platinum Pro I wasn’t even eligible for upgrades on award tickets, so I just got really lucky — or possibly listed for upgrade based on my status at the time of booking, not the time of flying.
Checking in was easy. I arrived at Terminal 8 at 5 a.m. There were only two agents at the priority line, but it moved fairly quickly. It took about four minutes to get boarding passes. I really miss having AA’s Exec Plat status; when I flew business class I was able to use the Flagship First check-in, but no longer.
Related: Guide to Flagship First check-in
There are some 82 kiosks at the American Airlines area of JFK Terminal 8. There were no lines to use the kiosks. Thanks to TSA PreCheck, I was through security in five minutes.
I was in the lounge by 5:25 a.m.
The three agents at the Flagship lounge check-in were great as always. It is my favorite U.S. lounge simply because I’ve built up relationships with so many folks there. It’s also been recently remodeled lounge and the food selection is great. It can get crowded, but at the predawn hour I got there, there was no wait to get in and the lounge was empty.
The spread on this Friday morning included donuts in several flavors, scrambled eggs, bacon, roasted baby potatoes, small quiches, fruits, deli meats and cheeses.
There are also eight showers there, which I appreciate although the water pressure leaves much to be desired. I do like the C.O. Bigelow-branded shower gels but I hate that they are in dispensers.
Wi-Fi in the lounge was good, with decent speeds of 10.1 Mbps downloading and 9.79 Mbps uploading.
The gate wasn’t crowded. There were enough seats but not enough outlets. There is, however, a bench with tons of plugs. My flight boarded promptly at 6:30 a.m.
Flight 76 was on the Airbus A321 registered N116AN, which joined the fleet in May 2014.
Cabin and Seat
On the A321T, American uses the Collins Aerospace Diamond seat that many airlines install in international business class. There are a total of 20 seats in business class.
The seats recline into full-flat beds. I actually find the business-class seats more comfortable than the first-class seats on this plane, although at 19” wide they are narrower by two inches.Why? Because the first-class cabin seats are angled more away from the aisle, and I feel like your body is not at such an extreme angle in business class as it is in first.
The big drawback is that not all seats have direct aisle access so you have to climb over a neighbor if you’re in the window seat. This setup is great for couples, but it can be extremely awkward if you are sitting next to a stranger. If the person next to you is sleeping, you will have to try to artfully jump over them without waking them. (Been there, done that.)
There is a small privacy divider and the seats are slightly staggered so that helps a bit, but it’s not perfect.
The layout is fascinating. AA has three classes on these birds and the first- and business-class cabins take up much of the plane. Economy class is relatively small, and the reduced number of passengers makes the planes easier to service, according to most of the flight attendants I’ve spoken to. For a long-haul flight, it feels pretty intimate even in coach.
First class is 10 seats in a 1-1 configuration and coach is in 3-3 the main cabin for a total of 72 seats.
Another thing I love about this business class is the Bang & Olufsen headphones. Too bad they are distributed too late and collected too early. Other airlines allow using premium-class headphones throughout the flight.
There is one small bathroom for the business-class cabin, but you can sneak up to use the first-class restroom as well.
Amenities and IFE
I find American Airline’s Wi-Fi to be the best of the Big Three airlines. It’s usually reliable and functioning which is more than you can say for United. I also find it faster than Delta’s. I bought a flight pass from Viasat for $18 and the speeds were good with 97 Mbps download and 1.1 Mbps upload. It was good enough to work and watch movies.
I counted 176 movies available plus 26 TV shows with multiple episodes. Live TV is also available on AA’s IFE. You can also stream Apple Music for free.
The 15” touchscreen monitor is a good size. There is also a small remote (be careful not to hit it accidentally since it’s at the hip of the seat).
Each seat has a power outlet and a USB port. There’s also a socket for headphones at the end of the seat above your head, but it’s awkwardly placed and if you move wrong during the flight, you can easily pull the plugs out.
There was a nice blanket and pillow wrapped in plastic at each seat with Casper branding. There was also a fancy APL amenity kit which I don’t find particularly revolutionary, but my TPG colleague Sam Rosen was kind of impressed.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
I had a predeparture orange juice in a fancy plastic cup in my hands by 6:46 a.m.
We took off at 7:26 a.m. and first drinks were served an hour and 38 minutes into the flight — and the meal wasn’t served until 8:45 a.m. That’s slow meal service.
The menu offered ample choice for breakfast on a domestic flight. It offered an American breakfast (scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, roasted potatoes and herbed tomato), or bagel and lox, or a broccoli-and-cheddar frittata or coconut chia oatmeal. Portions were small, but it was with for me since I had snacked at the AA Flagship lounge.
I had the frittata, which was a bit bland. A bread basket was offered with biscuits and rolls, but no second helpings. A chocolate chip cookie was served about an hour before landing. There was also a snack basket available for much of the flight.
We landed at 10:26 a.m., 26 minutes early.
As most readers know, service on American Airlines is hit or miss. As I mentioned, I have always had great luck with some incredible staffers in the lounges at JFK, especially Natalie, Sharon and Marissa C., but I don’t always have the same luck with cabin crews. I generally find that those based in New York are not nearly as nice as the San Francisco crews. This flight was definitely a New York-based crew. They were pleasant but perfunctory. Those Bang & Olufsen headphones took forever to arrive and were collected early, and drinks and meal service came slowly as well. Otherwise, everything was fine. Overall, I would describe the service as “just OK.”
I have flown AA’s transcontinental A321T planes many times since my family lives in the Bay Area of California and I live in New York. I go back and forth at least once every three months. I find the service hit or miss with great service from San Francisco-based crews and not-so-great with New York-based crews. Flight AA76 was no different. I loved getting a great mileage redemption, a free surprise upgrade and excellent ground service. I love the interiors of these Airbus planes, but the service and food weren’t perfect. Still, any time I can get an upgrade and arrive on time (or early in this case) on American Airlines, a carrier I fly often, call it a win. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly AA on this route again and I would choose it over Alaska Airlines in coach.
In our previous reviews, by three different reviewers, American’s business class on the A321T scored 78, 79 and 75 points respectively. This flight confirmed our impression of AA’s transcon biz class, and the 79-point score for it is above the 74-point average for domestic premium class.
All photos by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy
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